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Why We Shouldn't Tell People to 'Think Positive' When They Suffer

Why We Shouldn't Tell People to 'Think Positive' When They Suffer

Yes, the Bible tells us to count all suffering with joy (James 1:2). But often we can get biblical joy mixed up with a false positivity. The Bible doesn't command us to be happy in all circumstances. Prophets, kings, and even Jesus himself cried out to the Father in anguish (Matthew 26). So what should we do when a brother or sister suffers? And how do we avoid telling them the flippant advice, "Oh, just be positive about the situation. I'm sure God's got this."

Why Should Christians Avoid Telling Others 'Be Positive'?

First, I think we need to address the difference between biblical joy and worldly positivity.

Biblical joy is a supernatural kind of joy, given by God, in the midst of life's hardest circumstances. It isn't forcing a smile or thinking good thoughts. It praises God in the midst of the storm.

Thinking positive on the other hand forces someone to ignore their situation, and ignore their hurt. This maladaptive coping mechanism can often lead to pent-up frustration, rage, or despair once one's energy runs out.

Biblical joy comes from God.

Worldly positivity comes from our own strength and runs out, fast.

"Well, Hope, when I say 'be positive' what I really mean is 'choose joy,'" you may say. And I totally get what a person means by this. They mean to accept God's supernatural joy, even in the darkest of circumstances. But often it comes across as, "Be positive. Keep your chin up. It'll get better."

Let me offer a biblical account where both the advice "choose joy (in the worldly sense)" and "be positive" really wouldn't have worked.

The Story of Lazarus (John 11)

Jesus had taken his time to getting to Lazarus after he received word about his failing health. So much that Lazarus passed away before Jesus stepped onto the scene.

Martha, Lazarus' sister, confronts him about his untimeliness. Although he does tell her that he will raise Lazarus from the dead to display his Father's glory, something important takes place right before Jesus performs the miracle.

John 11:35: "Jesus wept."

The most famous two-word verse in the Bible. Jesus wept, bitterly.

He knew the outcome. That within a few minutes, Lazarus would emerge from the tomb, very much alive. He knew the Father's will. And yet, he wept.

Imagine if Jesus instead had clapped Martha on the back and said, "Now, Martha. Be positive. God's got this. Your negative energy won't help the situation."

Martha probably would've exercised extreme restraint in not slapping him if that were the case. No, God cries with us. He understands our emotions and doesn't tell us, "Well, buck up and slap a smile on that face. Don't you know who I am?" Instead, he holds us, comforts us, weeps with us.

Of course, at the end of the story in John 11, Lazarus resurrects. But not before they experience sorrow. God created our emotions, which includes the less than pleasant ones of anger, frustration, sadness, etc. So don't be afraid to let someone have a moment of suffering in silence. Be there with a hug when they un-tuck their head from their arms.

Alternatives to Saying 'Be Positive'

So what then shall we say? Since we don't want to simply, awkwardly stand there and do nothing. The Holy Spirit often prompts us with the right words in those situations, so I won't give you specific phrases to say, but rather, some things to consider.

First, a hug

If they're fine with hugs (not everyone loves physical contact). But most of the time, people don't need advice. Really, they don't. They just need someone to hold them as they cry.

Second, pray with them

Or if you can't, tell them you are praying for them. And mean it. The power of prayer is unprecedented, and it really can shape entire lives. Prayers go a lot farther than advice does, most of the time.

Third, ask how you can help

Most of the time they won't have an answer. Because most of the time we weep for situations in which we cannot fix. When someone close to us passes away, when we lose a job that provided for our family, when we experience heartbreak. But it never hurts to ask how you can help someone.

Fourth, provide for physical needs

Why "be positive" often feels like a slap to the face is because it really doesn't help the situation. But if you cooked them a meal, anonymously donated groceries, helped them to pay for a water bill they couldn't afford that month—doing tends to do a lot more than speaking does.

Fifth, ask if it's okay to send encouraging Bible verses or devotional passages

Make sure to acquire the permission of the person first. Not everyone wants these delivered to their inboxes or texts. But most of the time, they'll appreciate the gesture.

Why Do So Many Christians Feel Tempted to Say 'Be Positive'

When we experience the life-changing grace of Christ, we cannot help but speak about it. But sometimes that translates into giving advice, when advice really isn't needed.

Or perhaps we have experienced a mountaintop season of life, and we very vaguely remember our darkest valley days. So we just want the person to cheer up because those dark seasons don't last forever. We sometimes forget about how it feels to be in the midst of the suffering and sorrow.

And, honestly, many of us feel awkward in such situations and, to flee, we offer flippant advice like, "Be positive."

Instead, let's sit with our friends in the hurt and throw off the worldly idea that we can somehow fix everything for them. Most of the time, only God can heal in these circumstances. So let's be there for them, comfort them, and find out ways we can meet immediate needs for them. It will have a far greater impact for the kingdom of God, and we will be able to show Christ more clearly to them.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/sharpshutt

Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author 21+ books. More than 1400 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.

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